12 Essential Insights for Managing Teams

For decades, researchers have published findings around leadership and team building in MIT Sloan Management Review. This collection offers a dozen of our most popular articles on managing teams.

Reading Time: 3 min 

Teamwork doesn’t just happen — good teams require good leaders who have vision and practiced skills. Leading effective teams today requires laying the groundwork for how team members and the wider organization will be successful. We’ve collected a dozen of our most popular articles on leading teams from our archives.

This collection, all of which are free on our site Tuesday, March 24, through Thursday, March 26, offers a range of actionable advice for managers on how to foster trust and accountability, resolve conflicts, and bridge geographic distances on distributed teams. Readers will benefit from decades of research from academics and practitioners on the skills and effective approaches leaders need to manage diverse teams to enhance collaboration and achieve better performance.

1. The Smart Way to Respond to Negative Emotions at Work

Christine M. Pearson

Whether provoked by bad decisions, misfortune, poor timing, or employees’ personal problems, no organization is immune from bad feelings. Many executives try to ignore negative emotions in the workplace, but that tactic can be costly. When employees’ negative feelings are responded to wisely, they often provide important feedback.

2. It’s Time to Tackle Your Team’s Undiscussables

Ginka Toegel and Jean-Louis Barsoux

The more undiscussables there are on your team, the more difficult it is for the team to function effectively. Ignoring unresolved conflicts results in strained relationships and bad decisions. This article outlines how leaders can bring the four types of undiscussables to light, improving team learning, problem-solving, and performance.

3. Five Rules for Managing Large, Complex Projects

Andrew Davies, Mark Dodgson, David M. Gann, and Samuel C. MacAulay

Large-scale, long-term projects are notoriously difficult to manage. But research on megaprojects — defined as projects costing more than $1 billion — reveals five lessons that can help executives manage any big, complex project more effectively.

4. Five Ways to Improve Communication in Virtual Teams

N. Sharon Hill and Kathryn M. Bartol

When it comes to managing your virtual team’s success, it’s not the technology that matters — it’s how people use it. This article looks at five strategies for conquering distance and improving communication and performance in dispersed teams.

5. How to Create Belonging for Remote Workers

Liz Fosslien and Mollie West-Duffy

A common question among leaders about managing remote teams is how to ensure that employees feel connected to their work and to their colleagues. There are practical steps managers and colleagues can take to make their remote employees feel valuable and ingrained in company culture.

6. How to Manage Virtual Teams

Frank Siebdrat, Martin Hoegl, and Holger Ernst

Dispersed teams can actually outperform groups that are colocated. Based on an investigation of the performance of 80 software development projects with varying levels of dispersion — members in different cities, countries, or continents — this article asserts that virtual teams offer tremendous opportunities despite their greater managerial challenges. To succeed, however, virtual collaboration must be managed in specific ways.

7. Why Teams Still Need Leaders

Lindred (Lindy) Greer, interviewed by Frieda Klotz

While flat organizational structures have gained favor in recent years, hierarchies continue to provide many important benefits, says the University of Michigan’s Lindy Greer. Depending on the circumstances, the answer isn’t to eliminate hierarchy but to train leaders and teams to use it flexibly.

8. The Trouble With Homogeneous Teams

Evan Apfelbaum, interviewed by Martha E. Mangelsdorf

Diversity in the workplace can increase conflict. But research also suggests that if teams lack diversity, they will be more susceptible to making flawed decisions.

9. Improving the Rhythm of Your Collaboration

Ethan Bernstein, Jesse Shore, and David Lazer

With so many digital tools in the workplace, team collaboration has gone omnichannel. Given how hyperconnected people are, the authors set out to explore the implications for organizations and teams. Their research demonstrates how alternating between always-on connectivity and heads-down focus is essential for problem-solving.

10. The Unique Challenges of Cross-Boundary Collaboration

Amy Edmondson, interviewed by Frieda Klotz

Many of today’s team projects have built-in hurdles because of differing communication styles, cultures, and professional norms. Leading this kind of “extreme teaming” requires management skills that don’t always come naturally — such as humility.

11. In Praise of the Incurably Curious Leader

Douglas A. Ready

There is a growing recognition that curiosity is an essential leadership trait. Leaders who consider themselves perpetual students are thriving by asking questions, demanding them of their teams, and exploring the root cause of problems rather than focusing on temporary fixes.

12. How to Lead a Self-Managing Team

Vanessa Urch Druskat and Jane V. Wheeler

Teams that are basically left to run themselves can be highly efficient and productive. To be successful, though, such autonomous groups require a specific type of external leadership.

Help Yourself to Research and Ideas You Can Use

Times are tough. The economy looks precarious. Leaders are scrambling.

We’d like to give you a hand in whatever small way we can. These past few weeks, we’ve been offering our best research and ideas on leading in a crisis, dealing with disruption, and working in virtual teams. This week, we’re making all of that content, plus the rest of our articles, reports, videos, and interactive tools, freely available through Thursday, March 26.

Like you, we are attempting to quickly adjust to new realities and new constraints on how we work, travel, and collaborate. While that may leave less time for reading and reflection, we believe that many of our expert authors’ contributions may be particularly helpful, both now and as you plan for the future.

To get you started on your browsing, we’re offering some recommendations that are relevant to the current crisis and other leadership challenges of the moment. I hope the selections below are helpful to you. We’d love your feedback.

Join Our Twitter Chat: A Conversation About Tech and Management

MIT SMR kicked off 2020 with a series of biweekly Twitter chats designed to give our readers a forum to discuss top-of-mind management and technology issues. We hope you’ve found this program to be insightful and helpful. Whether you wrestle with specific management and technology challenges at work, coach other organizations, or conduct research, our goal with #MITSMRChat has been to create a space where you can join in conversations with like-minded peers to exchange ideas.

We hope you’ll join us Tuesday, March 24, for our final scheduled conversation — at least for a while — where we’ll talk about the intersection of technology and business.

To participate, head over to MIT Sloan Management Review’s Twitter feed (@mitsmr) at the chat start time, or search Twitter for the hashtag #MITSMRChat to follow along.

In advance of the chat, consider reading these posts to get a sense of recent #MITSMRChat events:

Is the COVID-19 Outbreak a Black Swan or the New Normal?

Image courtesy of Carolyn Ann Geason

In the time between writing this and reading it, whatever I say about COVID-19 will likely be out of date. That’s the nature of something moving at exponential speed through society. The scale of what’s happening is hard to grasp, and it’s logical to wonder whether COVID-19 is the so-called black swan that society and business have feared. The answer is, of course it is. But it also could be the kind of challenge we now will face all the time — a new normal.

It’s way too early to talk about “lessons learned” while a large-scale human tragedy unfolds. But it’s hard to think about anything else right now, and the brain looks for something useful to grab on to. So I’ll make a few observations about this global challenge and its relation to our other mega-issues like climate change.

Big-Picture Thoughts

We have to get better at understanding and reacting to exponential growth. As of February 11, the number of COVID-19 cases outside of China was fewer than 400. As I write this five weeks later, it’s more than 90,000 — a rise of more than 18% in a single day.

Teachers have long used this parable to explain exponential growth: Imagine a pond with a single lily pad. Each day, the number of lily pads doubles, and in 30 days the pond is covered (and smothered). On what day do you think it was half covered? What about only 1% covered? The answers are day 29 and day 24. Even if you use a 50% growth rate instead of 100%, it’s day 28 and day 19.

In the context of COVID-19, this means that if we don’t “flatten the curve of growth,” a vast amount of illness and death will hit very rapidly. Our health care system and economy risk collapsing under the weight.

We do have experience (and spotty success) managing the exponential growth that drives our biggest global challenges, including population, use of resources, and emissions of greenhouse gases. From the Industrial Revolution to the 2010s, these all have grown nonlinearly. The growth of emissions is now slowing, thankfully. But, in part, because it was hard to envision what exponential growth of emissions would look like, we’ve reacted too late to avoid significant impacts on people and the planet. The same thing is happening now with COVID-19 as people are slow to dramatically cut contact with others, and so some unknown amount of suffering still lies ahead.

On the flip side, because we need some good news, some great things have moved nonlinearly in recent decades: the lessening of childhood poverty, the reduction of some diseases (some down to zero), and the downward slope of the cost of renewable energy. These positive trends drive deep change in society and require preparation as well.

Planetary boundaries will shape our world for the foreseeable future. There’s only so much planet to go around — only so many productive mines, only so many fish in the sea, only so much arable land, only so much CO2 that oceans and atmosphere can absorb, and so on. As we test these limits, we risk shifting the planet beyond recognition. All economies and businesses have to find a way to work within these basic speed limits.

Arguably, the rise of viruses like the one that causes COVID-19 is a byproduct of some of these boundaries. Scientists don’t have a full understanding of the origin of the COVID-19 virus yet, but it’s known that bats were probably involved, as well as some other species. The earliest people infected in China worked in a live-animal market with unusual fare such as pangolin, a kind of anteater, another suspected source of the outbreak. But why are people eating so-called bushmeat? Perhaps this oversimplifies, but it’s some combination of pure survival and an attitude that “animals live for man.” When nearly 8 billion people inhabit a single planet, pushing up against nature, and billions don’t have enough to thrive, they will eat anything. And when we see nature as purely something to use, we overexploit it.

We must understand that we’re all connected. The pendulum has been swinging in recent years to an “every person for themselves” attitude. Pure nationalism is frankly dangerous in the face of borderless issues like climate change, resource overuse, and, yes, pandemics. On some level, we’re only as strong as our weakest immune systems.

In this vein, seemingly political questions like “Should everyone have some basic health care coverage?” become issues of human and economic thriving. In short, if people have no coverage and can’t stop working when they’re sick anyway (because they lack paid leave or benefits), they will show up at work. They will handle and prepare food. They will sell us our groceries. They will drive our Lyfts and our ambulances.

There is no hiding behind physical or economic walls forever. If there isn’t a basic floor of access to energy, water, food, and health care for everyone, we’re all at risk. If we don’t all thrive, none of us will.

Climate change and disease are linked. There are overlaps and dependencies between all our biggest issues. As the planet warms, the seasons will lengthen and geographic ranges will expand for many dangerous diseases, such as malaria, dengue fever, chikungunya, and West Nile virus. We need to think about our health care system with all these trends in mind.

At the same time, when the seas rise and some areas become uninhabitable, there will be more refugees. They will likely have little economic and health care support. I am not saying that refugees bring in exotic diseases — our own citizens traveling on planes and boats have imported and spread COVID-19. But we can recognize that more people on the move with limited institutional support won’t make for better overall health.

And in a perverse way, economic slowdowns from market crashes or pandemics slow emissions. As former U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres said recently, slower economic growth from coronavirus “may be good for climate … because there is less trade, there is less travel, there is less commerce.” This obviously is a consequence that evokes mixed emotions: Less pollution is good, but the human costs of economic slowdowns add real pain to the already devastating outcomes of a pandemic.

We can see from space that the air quality around Wuhan, China, is dramatically better when people, you know, stop doing anything. This is not how we want to get there, but this crisis allows us to imagine a world where the footprint of our economy is much smaller and people can quite literally breathe easier. About 8 million people die prematurely from bad air every year. Wouldn’t it be nice to find a way to build an economy for all that greatly reduces the risk of pandemics and slashed the ongoing death and disease from pollution and climate change?

Some Thoughts for Companies

In the thick of a crisis of this magnitude, it’s hard to step back and see what companies might take away from what they’re experiencing today, but let’s try. A few themes:

When in doubt, we should put people first. The first reaction to the virus, especially in the U.S., seemed to be about mitigating its effect on the stock market and economy. Many companies put out statements about impacts on supply chains and demand. All of that matters, but seriously, we’re experiencing a human health emergency. Companies and governments can do better than just talk about profits and the market.

Given the tragedy at the core of this, company leaders should ask themselves, “What’s the best thing we can do for our employees?” Going virtual is the easiest for some organizations, but it gets more complicated for jobs that can’t be done remotely. Can companies provide some emergency pay for workers as the economy slows — or at least ask for government grants and loans to do so?

Many companies also have experience with putting communities first in an emergency. One of the defining moments of corporate sustainability came in 2005 when Walmart’s leaders realized that the company was doing better than the government at getting supplies to people trapped by Hurricane Katrina. This led to soul-searching and the CEO asking himself what else the company could do for society. More recently, Budweiser shifted production to make half a million cans of water for hurricane victims. And many companies have worked with the U.N. to offer aid during pandemics — Unilever provided 750,000 bars of soap during an Ebola outbreak.

As I write this, companies are beginning to step up and take dramatic action to help the world get through the pandemic. French luxury leader LVMH announced that it is pivoting three factories to make hand sanitizer, and it will give tons of the gel to the French government and hospital systems for free.

Communities, governments, and employees will remember these actions. These companies, by helping people and doing what’s right, build trust and enhance their license to operate.

Economic resilience in the face of black swans requires companies to do things differently. Our current economic model is based on pursuing efficiency: Find the quickest and cheapest way to do or make something, and you likely have a time or cost advantage. But global supply chains that optimize for centralization and reduced costs have serious potential weaknesses.

An analysis of global supply chains earlier this month calculated that the world’s 1,000 largest companies and their suppliers have over 12,000 facilities in quarantined areas of China, Korea, and Italy. We’ve seen something like this before. Massive floods in Thailand in 2011 shut down factories that made critical parts for the computer hard drive industry and components for major automakers. Those were the only places some parts were made.

Nothing can prevent the demand reductions that will come from social distancing and severe cutbacks in travel and all services. But more generally, there are some things organizations can do to reduce the risks to operations. They can build into their value chains some duplication and diversity — key principles of resilience in nature (we have two kidneys for a reason) — in production and suppliers. In the short run, multiple supply chain and production pathways may seem less than efficient, but they come in handy in an emergency. Businesses should value resiliency and risk reduction in their plans and investment calculations, not just whatever gets them the lowest cost today.

Companies must also prepare for good exponential trends, which demolish some business models and create new ones. The clean economy, for example, is replacing fossil fuels at what seems like a slow rate, but like the lily pads, it will take over quickly.

We may discover something useful about how we interact and travel. Like it or not, we’re embarking on a grand experiment with remote work and technology. As Figueres, the former U.N. official, said in February, “We may realize that we don’t have to travel as much. And I am sure the market will jump into the opportunity, even perfect even more technologies so that we can communicate and participate in meetings, almost as though we were physically present. That would be a systemic contribution to [reducing] climate change.” As she notes, all of this will prepare us for accommodating diseases and pandemics in the future.

Business needs to get off the policy and political sidelines. It’s critical for companies to do what’s right for their employees and some community members in a crisis. But during systemic emergencies and challenges, we need more. Business needs to use its political influence to drive change in government.

Most multinationals outside the energy sector have avoided any serious lobbying or communication with political leaders about climate policy. They sign statements supporting action but don’t show up in person in D.C., Brussels, or regional and state capitals to make their case for a price on carbon or investments in clean tech.

The same may be happening with COVID-19. Companies — and large organizations like universities and all the professional sports leagues in the U.S. — are going virtual or shutting down quickly. That’s the right thing to do to flatten that curve of the infection rate.

But is it enough just to do what’s directly within your control? Not anymore. Business obviously has a deep stake in having a functioning economy and employees that are healthy. So slowing the virus must be a top priority. That means calling on governments to get their act together to close schools, ban public gatherings, develop testing infrastructure much faster, and provide constant transparency about what’s happening. If the federal administration of a country is lagging, companies need to apply pressure fast.

For me, all of this adds up to where I started: COVID-19 and climate change are, of course, black swans, one moving faster than the other. But they point to more permanent changes we all have to make in our lives and how we do business.

Let’s hope we pull together in time on all of these challenges and take the opportunity to build a more humane, compassionate, sustainable world. Please stay home for now and stay safe.

Italy is in a complete nationwide lockdown over the coronavirus. Here are the rules all 60 million citizens now have to follow.

  • Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte put the country’s entire population under strict lockdown from Tuesday onwards after the country’s infections zoomed past 9,100 on Monday.
  • The country’s 60 million citizens now face numerous restrictions that affect all aspects of life, including retail, leisure, worship, imprisonment, and travel.
  • Some travel is allowed with police permission, and most shops and restaurants have limited opening hours.
  • Major gatherings such as football matches and university classes are on hold until at least April 3, according to Sky News.
  • Here are seven rules that Italians have been told to live by under the coronavirus lockdown.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Italy entered its first day of a total nationwide lockdown on Tuesday after a dramatic uptick in the number of infections and deaths from the coronavirus.

The number of cases surpassed 9,100 and death toll reached 463 on Monday night, causing the country to surpass South Korea to become the worst-hit country outside China in terms of cases and deaths.

Initially, only the northern region of Lombardy and 14 nearby provinces were included in the lockdown, which began on Sunday. But Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has extended this nationwide. 

Referring to the earlier lockdown in the north, he told reporters at a televised press conference on Monday that the whole country was now under the new measures “There won’t be just a red zone,” he said. “There will be Italy.”

Here are all the rules that Italians now have to follow:

italy coronavirus lockdown
A man wearing a protective face mask walks near the Rome’s Spanish Steps, virtually deserted after a decree orders for the whole of Italy to be on lockdown in an unprecedented clampdown aimed at beating the coronavirus, in Rome, Italy, March 10, 2020.
Remo Casilli/Reuters

1. Don’t go out. Don’t socialize.

Conte described the quarantine policy simply as: “I stay home,” according to the BBC.

Many places where people ordinarily gather in large numbers, such as large sporting events, schools and universities, and even mass, have already been shut down. 

Football matches have been canceled and won’t restart until at least April 3, Sky News reported. But some high-level sports events and training can continue without audiences, The Guardian reported

Gym subscriptions and prepaid cinema and concert tickets have now been rendered useless as most non-essential socializing is now forbidden, The New York Times reported.

Museums, cultural centers, swimming pools, spas, sports halls and ski resorts across the country have also been shut, according to The Guardian.

Italy coronavirus lockdown restaurants
A waiter stands by empty tables outside a restaurant at St Mark’s Square after the Italian government imposed a virtual lockdown on the north of Italy including Venice to try to contain a coronavirus outbreak, in Venice
Manuel Silvestri/Reuters

2. Restaurants, cafes, and shops can only operate if people stay three feet apart.

These businesses are allowed to operate until 6 p.m. as lon as they can guarantee that customers will be distanced by one meter, or 3.2 feet, Sky News reported.

Food stores are allowed to keep regular opening hours, while malls and marketplaces have been told to close at weekends, Sky Nes added.

3. Italians who want to travel must get police permission.

Public transport and airports are continuing to operate, but only essential travel is allowed, the BBC reported.

Permissible travel — including flights — includes a valid work- or family-related reason that cannot otherwise be postponed.

According to Sky News, train travelers must sign police forms attesting to their reasons, and cars are being stopped for police checks.

Italy coronavirus lockdown travel police station
A police officer with protective mask checks people’s documents at Milan’s main train station, following a government decree that has shut down large areas in the north of the country, to stem coronavirus contagion, Milan, Italy March 9, 2020.
Daniele Mascolo/Reuters

4. People accompanying others to the emergency room can no longer wait with them.

They will now need permission to stay in the waiting room with anyone who is visiting hospitals’ emergency departments, Sky News reported.

5. Healthcare workers have to cancel their holidays.

Doctors, nurses, and other medical workers have been told to cancel their leave to help fight the influx of coronavirus patients.

This mirrors China sending thousands of medical workers into Hubei, the province where the outbreak started, to help fight the disease.

6. People with loved ones in jail are either banned from visiting them, or have limited time to do so.

Italy’s restrictions on the northern Lombardy region and 14 neighboring provinces, which came into effect Sunday, also limited or suspended prisoners’ ability to have family visits.

Riots broke out in jails at the weekend as prisoners reacted to the news. Unrest began at jails in Modena, Pavia, Rome, and Foggia, with some prisoners attempting to escape and others setting fires. 

Alessio Scandurra, a spokesman for prisoners’ rights organization Antigone Association, told the Associated Press the unrest was due to frustration at the limited visits as well as anxiety over potential coronavirus infection in confinement. 

Italy prison riot coronavirus
Inmates gather by a barred window at San Vittore Prison as part of a revolt after family visits were suspended due to fears over coronavirus contagion, in Milan, Italy, March 9, 2020. The banner reads “Liberty.”
REUTERS/Flavio Lo Scalzo

7. Mortgage repayments, however, have been suspended.

Banks have imposed a moratorium on mortgage repayments, Reuters reported.

The Italian Banking Association, which represents 90% of total banking assets in Italy, said lenders would allow the pause in payments to help companies and households disrupted by the virus and the quarantine.

Italy’s unprecedented lockdown comes as China appears to be turning a corner in the outbreak. The country, which also sealed off almost a dozen cities last month during the virus’ peak, has been recording fewer and fewer new cases every day.